Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—in honor of March being National Women’s History Month—Gena celebrates the 21st anniversary of Janet Reno becoming the nation’s first female attorney general.
On 11 March 1993 Janet Reno accomplished a first that no other woman has done since: she was confirmed to serve as U.S. Attorney General, beginning her tenure as the second-longest-serving attorney general in our nation’s history. To this day, no other woman has served as Attorney General of the United States.
But that wasn’t the only first that Janet Reno accomplished. Searching on her in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives pulls up many news articles showing that her illustrious life was marked by many such milestones.
Janet Reno was born in Florida on 21 July 1938. After earning her chemistry degree from Cornell she attended Harvard Law School, where she was one of only 16 women in a class of 500. In this 1970 newspaper article looking back at Cornell’s graduating class of 1960, Janet Reno is described as “now a partner in a Miami, Fla., law firm, is a prime mover in Miami’s civic affairs and is eyeing a career in politics.” According to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she became a partner in a law firm that previously denied her a position because she was a woman.*
Prior to being nominated by then-President Bill Clinton for attorney general, Reno served as a partner in two law firms and then eventually went on to become the state attorney for Dade County (Florida).**
Janet Reno’s Senate hearing was different from those that we often read about: she received a standing ovation! After those two days of hearings she became the first women attorney general. She was praised by many, including Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) who attended Harvard Law School with Reno and stated she was “superbly qualified to be our nation’s top lawyer. She is an innovative, straightforward, brilliant prosecutor.”
Reno won unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee and started her tenure in March 1993, remaining in her position until 20 January 2001.
One can easily imagine the pressure of being the first woman in such an important post. In an article printed after her historic Senate confirmation, Reno said that she planned on tackling the job as her mother taught her: “to be prepared…You try to do the right thing, just don’t let it overwhelm you.” While she didn’t admit to feeling pressure as the first female attorney general she did say that she wanted “to do the women of America proud.”
After eight years as attorney general, Reno’s life didn’t cease to be busy. She competed in an unsuccessful bid to become governor of her home state of Florida and was narrowly defeated. That election was her last foray into political life.
Her post-public life has included work with groups like the Innocence Project, which uses DNA to exonerate those wrongly convicted, and she even stepped into the celebrity spotlight with guest spots on the television shows The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live.
* Janet Reno, National Women’s Hall of Fame. Women of the Hall. http://www.greatwomen.org/women-of-the-hall/search-the-hall/details/2/121-Reno.
** Janet Reno, Women’s International Center, http://www.wic.org/bio/jreno.htm.